Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Plan the Work, Work the Plan

I have heard of investigators (and unfortunately, witnessed a few myself) that will simply go into a case without really knowing what they are looking for. They don't clarify expectations with the customer, don't think about what it is that they are trying to find, and end up just "looking for bad guy stuff". Can I just share with you what a monumentally horrible idea that is? If you don't know what it is that you are looking for, how will you ever known when you find it? This is why it is so critical to create an investigation plan BEFORE you start poking around in your data.

Creating an investigation plan is one of, if not the most important steps an investigator can take in preparation for a new case. It allows you to clearly outline what your objectives are and provides a framework for the direction of the entire case. All too often this critical step is skipped in the interest of time. What some folks don't realize is that by not having a comprehensive investigation plan, they are actually increasing the amount of time their case is likely to take.

The first question that needs to be asked at the onset of any case is, "what are my objectives". What are the goals of the case? What information does the customer want? What questions do they want answered? Once you have the specific items the customer wants to have addressed, reiterate them to ensure that there has not been a breakdown in communication somewhere.

"I am hearing that you want me to try and determine, X, Y, and Z. Is that correct?"

I know it may sound a bit juvenile, but really, everything hinges off the customer's expectations. So at the risk of misinterpreting those expectations, and failing to deliver what the customer has paid for, it is a necessary step. Ensure that both parties are "on the same sheet of music", so that when you deliver your final report you can state, "Hey...you asked me to find A, B, and C....HERE is A, B, and C".

This is where corporate investigators differ from our brethren in the law enforcement community...to a certain extent. We have a clear set of goals that our customers have paid for. They have the expectation that they will get answers to those questions. The SOW is signed, and we get to work and get them their answers in the time allotted by the contract.
In the law enforcement world, there are no timeframes and often no clear direction of what the goals are. Recently, I learned that most local, state, and federal agencies that deal with cyber-crimes are pushing out cases in anywhere from six months to three years! In that time, they may stumble upon three or four criminal activities perpetrated by the owner of the suspect system. They look under every rock, they search every crevice. They have the luxury of time (for the most part)...we do not.

Once the goals for our investigations have been established, we can apply the Alexiou Principle to further clarify our actions.

The Alexiou Principle states:
1. What question are you trying to answer?
2. What data do you need to answer that question?
3. How do you extract that data?
4. What does that data tell you?

Your questions need to be as specific as possible. You cannot simply say things like, "I want to find all signs of bad guy stuff", or "I want to find everything that this guy did wrong." Some good examples of well worded questions are:

1. How did the intruder gain access to the customer's network
2. What mechanism did the intruder use to gather customer data
3. How did the intruder get the stolen data off the customer's network

These can be answered clearly in with one sentence each.

1. The intruder gained access to the customer system by using a weak pcAnywhere password.
2. The intruder used a packet sniffer to detect and compile track data in transit.
3. The intruder used FTP to send files containing the stolen track data to his server.

There will obviously be much greater detail surrounding each question, however this is a good example of how you can be very precise in your answers. Don't take two paragraphs to say what you can say just as well in two sentences. Most customer's are not interested in verbosity, they just want to know what happened, and how.

Once you have your questions outlined, you can begin to search for the data that will provide you the answers. For example, if one of your questions is, "How did the intruder gain access to the customer's network" you are going to look in places that contain data about system access. You are NOT going to scan the machine for viruses, look for pornography, or check for rootkits. Why not? Because they have nothing to do with system access. You WOULD check in event logs, application logs (like pcAnywhere, or LogMeIn), firewall logs, ntuser.dat files, and the system and software registry hives.

With as much data that is in volatile memory, RAM dumps, and on system images, it's very easy to get overwhelmed - something referred to as "analysis paralysis". You have theories buzzing around in your head, "What if the attacker did this? What if he did that"? Don't fall victim to that kind thinking. Keep your hypothesis tied to the data. Let the data guide the direction of your case. Don't try to force the data to fit your ideas about the case.

We only have a limited time to deliver our final reports that clearly and concisely meet the customer's expectations. We do not have the luxury of time, and cannot possibly find everything that may be "wrong" with customer systems. We have been hired to answer questions...that's it. So answer them thoroughly, and in a manner that the customer can easily understand. If you stumble across something they have not asked (or paid for) then bonus...include it in the report as an additional finding, but don't go looking for them.

I have heard customers at the conclusion of a case state, "Why did you do X? I didn't ask you to do X. I asked you to do Y and Z! I want all of the money I spent on you finding X refunded to me. It was not in the contract, and I am not paying for it!" Also, I have been on the other side of that conversation in which a customer told me, "Why didn't you find Z? I wanted you to figure out Z!". To which I replied, "Hey...remember the SOW conversation we had, we outlined the goals of the investigation? Remember and you agreed to all of those items, and we put them in a contract...that you signed? You asked me to figure out A, B, and C...which I did...very clearly. If you want Z, that's fine...I will find Z, but we will need to add hours to the SOW." They didn't have any rebuttal because I MADE SURE to cover the expectations before sending over the SOW.

Develop your investigation plan based on what the customer wants. Restate their goals to them to ensure there have not been any miscommunications. Apply the Alexiou Principle to each of the goals, and get working - the clock is ticking.

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